A Proposal for a Transition University

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Dr. Mark Levene
Dr. Mark Levene and Dr. David Cromwell, lecturers in History and Oceanography respectively at the University of Southampton, co-founded the Forum for the Study of Crisis in the 21st Century – Crisis Forum – to look at alternative ways of dealing with the problems the 21st Century is already starting to present.

In anticipation of Professor Donald Nutbeam’s induction as Vice-Chancellor, Crisis Forum outlined a proposal that suggests an alternative way forward for the University of Southampton. Since anthropogenic climate change is now acknowledged as being the core of the crisis of the 21st century, the University, through its leading academic departments including Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), should realise its responsibility and potential as a centre of excellent research and act on the information curated in face of the encroaching biospheric emergency.

The question that Crisis Forum wish to pose to Vice-Chancellor Donald Nutbeam is thus:
‘Will he pursue the same trajectory as Southampton, and most other universities have done, and in which the pursuit of the economic bottom-line has remained primary, or – recognising that business as usual will not only no longer suffice but entirely and wilfully contradicts the climate science data – set out instead of a path which seeks to bring the University into alignment with that data?’

It is essentially the same question that they asked Sir Bill Wakeham when he started as Vice-Chancellor in 2002, and the difference of seven years also demonstrates the period of time in which the threat of climate change elevated in importance in both the academic world and the public domain. Crisis Forum recognise the major institutional, modular and fundamental economic implications that are inherent to their model of change, and they are aware that changes cannot be implemented overnight. Yet if the University go beyond the rhetorical position of only supporting the concept of being ‘green’ they could become recognised on a national and international scale for their innovation with regard to the practice of what the research produced at the University finds.

Crisis Forum propose that the University of Southampton could be one of the first universities to seize the transition initiative, in an adaption of the Transition Town movement that fundamentally resolves around a community working together. While the University’s Carbon Management group has made steps in the right direction, maximising energy efficiency, making architectural improvements on campus and demonstrating a drive towards renewables projects like the use of geo-thermal energy, Southampton University currently does not have the necessary commitment to change to respond to the reality of the abyss that awaits.

The Transition initiative can be divided into seven sections when considered against a University framework. Amendments to the Food Policy, Transport Policy, Curricula, Built Environment, Overseas Links, Democratic Deficit and Collaboration with other Universities and the local Community are essential if the principles of Contraction and Convergence, as outlined by the Global Commons Institute, are to met as part of the broad framework wherein the challenge of climate change may be faced. Crisis Forum subscribes to these principles, whereby ‘a trajectory based on transition would begin to marry that principle with practice’, resulting in a genuine Southampton Transition University that takes responsibility for the world around itself.

Food Policy
The University would purchase primarily locally grown food, where possible organic, for all of it’s catering requirements. It should aim to create communal gardens and orchards, with the possibility of livestock. This can all be done in conjunction with Southampton City Council and other local organisations, strengthening the University’s link with the wider community. Students would be encouraged to participate and mentored in food production, with rent rebates for monitored participants. The University would also develop a food waste recycling schemes, possibly based on the Greenfinch bio-digester system developed at Ludlow (the Ludlow scheme already has a major Southampton research input).

Transport Policy
Every effort would have to be taken to drastically reduce the carbon miles produced by those at the University, with specific focus on staff. The University would support staff who tried at all times to hold conferences through tele-conferencing as opposed to air travel, or if this is not possible then they would be supported if they took ‘slow’ travel to events. A car-sharing website, under University auspices, must be developed to promote a greener direction. A project that recycled kitchen wastes and spent cooking fuel for the University’s own transport or a conversion to electric cars would be ‘an early, achievable but high-profile statement of university intent.

Curricula
Climate Change would be introduced into all undergraduate School curricula, as appropriate to each School. HIST 2054, In the Face of Humanity, could be used as a prototype, currently in its second year of existence. The module, available to humanities students and taught by a range of lecturers from a wide variety of disciplines, has made many students aware of what is really meant by the future effects of climate change. As a student myself on the course last term, it is impossible and unnecessary to quantify the vast education that I received. Exposed properly for the first time to an inter-disciplinary approach that attempts to inspire action as the problems caused by climate change ferocioulsy multiply, I believe that my initially small understanding of the way the modern world operates increases each day as I stand in the face of humanity.

Built Environment
As mentioned before, the University currently has a Carbon Management programme, with a remit to reduce energy waste and improve buildings in relation to carbon efficiency. However this is run by a small team who have limited resources, and it is currently not doing enough under a transitions’ framework according to Crisis Forum. ‘Energy descent’ would become a central mission to the University, and again incentives and disincentives would be key to reducing the amount of energy used by staff and students. Not only would there be a financial incentive as costs would be saved, a key bonus to a business such as our University in the economic downturn, but again there would be links with local community, building relationships and setting an example for the future.

Overseas Links
Crisis Forum recognise the economic value to the University of students from abroad and research projects that entail foreign collaboration, but if we were to become a transition university alterations would need to be made. The ‘alternative trajectory’ would include distance learning programmes or in situ teaching programmes, and the development of inter-university projects specifically geared towards finding small-scale renewables and micro-generation technology to be used domestically and for third world utility. The reduction and termination of projects centred around increasing fossil fuel based technologies would be essential. ‘The emphasis at each stage would be on how University research could be enlisted to enable and enhance the ability of communities to produce and sustain local energy production, rather than further distancing them from its involvement in capital-intensive, hard technology projects.’

Democratic Deficit
As I said earlier, the key to the Transition movement is an emphasis on community, and this would need to be addressed in relation to University politics if Southampton is to remain a greener yet cutting-edge institution. Firstly, a broader staff and student participation in decision making is essential, if the needs of communities at the grass-roots are to be recognised. Secondly, an appraisal of research priorities at the University must be conducted so that broader objectives not clouded by funding sources can be seen. Crisis Forum re-iterates that ‘the notion of moving towards a transition mode and mission becomes meaningless if all other countervailing interests are shown to be the dominant ones’. A transition university that becomes a sustainable community is not ‘undermined or set off course by institutional, corporate, military, or other top-down interests’.

Collaboration with other Universities and the Community
Collaboration with other universities moving towards a transition mode can be instigated through the Russell Group network, making connections to lobby government ‘for a broader but genuine green deal at the tertiary sector with government and other agency funding allocated accordingly. Collaboration with the local community allows opportunities for the University to re-establish lost links with the city and it’s people. Crisis Forum’s proposal states that ‘rather than operating in splendid isolation, the University could at last claim its right to be called the University of Southampton’.

Each of these sub-headings have been taken from the proposal put forward by Crisis Forum.

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Discussion3 Comments

  1. avatar

    See http://wessexblog.com/2010/04/30/transition-university-initiative-builds-momentum-in-southampton/ for more information on how the campaign is going. There’s also going to be a motion in support of the Initiative at SUSU’s AGM this Thursday – come along and support it if you agree with their aims!

    A Meyer
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    Dr Levene’s views are also very well supported in the letter here from Colin Challen to Chris Huhne the UK’s new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change: –
    http://www.gci.org.uk/politics.html

  2. avatar

    Dr Mark Levene’s agenda is clear and encouraging.

    As the Crisis Forum already subscribes to the principle of ‘Contraction and Convergence’ [C&C]they may draw strength from the fact the UN itself has already said that “C&C is inevitably required to achieve the objective of the Climate Convention”.

    The ‘progressive alliance’ that could now come with a Liberal/Labour coalition has some promise. The Liberal Democrats already have C&C as a key manifesto commitment and now they are openly negotiating with Labour, Labour can’t exactly exit from C&C now as it is already the basis of their UK Climate Act: – http://www.gci.org.uk/public/COP_15_C&C.swf

    Future safe economic policy and stable government are impossible without a fundamental commitment to C&C and, as Adair Turner effectively told parliament last year, its impossible to imagine a future without it: – http://www.tangentfilms.com/C&Cconcept31mar.mp4

    As leader of the Greens, Caroline Lucas MP at last has an opportunity to be a rain-maker for this in parliament as it has been a GP manifesto commitment for many years.

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